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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing

July 2006
Volume 5, Issue 4

Columbus, Ohio Continues Administrative Streamlining Reforms

A photograph of a one story office building with a white car in front.
Last year, the Regulatory Barriers Clearinghouse highlighted an agreement between Columbus, Ohio and the development community in which both sides made a commitment to reduce the amount of time it takes to approve development proposals. In a Memorandum of Understanding signed in November 2001, Columbus agreed to undertake 22 specific actions to streamline the development process. The city also committed to specific timeline standards for processing requests. For example, the city agreed to process preliminary subdivision plats within 22 days and developed a mechanism for redress in the event they're unable to meet the deadlines. In exchange, developers agreed to a number of commitments that include submitting complete plats or plans, designating a single point of contact, and addressing review comments in revised plans or plats.

Program Size

Columbus enjoys a robust housing development market. Each year, the Building Services division issues approximately 26,000 permits with a value of between $950 million and $1.2 billion. They also schedule approximately 125,000 inspections and renew licenses for some 4,300 contractors. With a program of this size, city authorities saw no option but to modernize and streamline the development process.

Implementation of the Agreement

Digital Submissions

In May of 2006, the city implemented its Digital Submission Standards program. Applicants must now provide electronic versions of preliminary and final plat submissions (as well as rezoning and council variance requests) to the appropriate offices. The city expects that these electronic versions will reduce processing time. The city also developed detailed guidelines and a template for submitting this material.

Updated Columbus Development Guide

City staff updated the Columbus Development Guide to incorporate its new streamlined processes. The Guide contains detailed information on the process for receiving approval to undertake a number of actions, including annexation, rezoning, sale of city property, building permits, and historic reviews. For each of these requests, the guide states when work requires a permit, what materials the developer must submit and where, the estimated time it will take the city to review the materials, and approximately how much the review will cost.

For example, the city requires a building permit for work to erect, construct, enlarge, add to, alter, repair, replace, move, improve, remove, install, convert, demolish, equip, use, occupy, or maintain a building, structure, or building service equipment. It indicates that an applicant must supply a site plan, building plans, and a method of payment. The Guide says that it will take approximately seven working days to review the material. An applicant can obtain the fee schedule online or at the city's building services office. The guide also contains a flowchart indicating the steps in the decisionmaking process and an estimate of the amount of time needed to make each decision.

One-Stop Shop

According to Mark Brumenschenkel, Administrator for the Building Services Division, the city is embarking on a major initiative to move approving authorities to one location, thereby creating a one-stop shop. While plan examination and planning have been co-located since 1999, staff are now moving other review and approval bodies to the same building, allowing applicants to obtain a variety of permits from a single location. While the initial plans called for the one-stop shop to be operational by September, logistical constraints have caused administrators to target early November as a more realistic date.

Parallel Review Process

The city is revising its regulations to allow applicants to concurrently submit review material to several municipal bodies. Recent city legislation allows developers to submit building plans together with their request for a zoning change. Other regulations allow applicants to submit a subdivision preliminary plat after board of zoning adjustment review. According to Chief Plans Official Andrew Beard, the development community understands that, should either review body reject the submission, then delays are to be expected.

Technology Improvements

The city has made a commitment to improving its web-based services to reduce administrative processing time (builders often point to lengthy and arduous permitting and inspection as contributing to the high cost of construction). The existing system, referred to as the 'Permit Manager,' allows applicants to monitor the status of permits online. The city envisions improvements to include the ability to submit permit requests, schedule inspections, pay fees, bid on city capital improvement projects, complete an entire plan review electronically, and complete wireless real-time inspections and approvals online. In addition, developers should eventually be able to extract project status information by entering a name into an interactive website that tracks development projects. The city realizes that while these improvements will shorten processing times, they also require a substantial up-front investment.

Anticipated Goal

Brumenschenkel says that the city is implementing land development processing reforms in little steps. He states, "We're going to learn more by implementing one initiative at a time, rather than trying to accomplish too much."

Ultimately, the goal of these reforms is to reduce processing time, and while Brumenschenkel says that they have a long way to go, much has already been accomplished. Before the city enacted any of these reforms, it took 18 - 24 months to approve a subdivision in Columbus. With the current reforms in place, review time has been reduced to a more manageable 12 to 18 months. He hopes that the streamlining efforts still to come will further reduce processing times to no more than 12 months.

Sacramento Provides Pre-Approved House Plans To Speed Redevelopment

A drawing of a one-story brown house with a maroon garage door.
Sacramento, California is launching a new initiative to reduce the amount of time it takes to approve the construction of infill housing. Builders can purchase pre-approved house plans and begin construction as much as six weeks earlier than if they were using other plans and specifications.

Identifying the Issues

According to Lucinda Willcox, Infill Coordinator with the City of Sacramento, an inventory of vacant properties in 2000 determined that a large number were individual single-family lots in existing neighborhoods. The report from 2002 indicates that over 5,000 vacant and/or blighted properties exist in Sacramento. The report estimates that these properties cover over 2,500 acres and have the potential to provide space for over 17,800 dwellings. Of this total, 70 percent, or 3,500 vacant parcels, were 10,000 square feet or smaller.

Despite the available inventory, the number of reviews that each proposal must undergo has restricted development of quality single-family homes in the city's older neighborhoods and redevelopment areas. In order to ensure quality design, planned projects must undergo a formal discretionary design review. At the same time, redevelopment area committees (RAC) or project area committees (PAC) also review the proposals.

Pre-Approved Plans: Part of the Solution

Sacramento recognized that these reviews add time to the redevelopment process and increase holding costs to the developer. These costs would be passed along to the buyer in the form of higher sales prices. The city's long-range goal is to encourage development of quality single-family residential development in these infill areas of the city. The city determined that one way to meet this goal is to provide contractors with plans that had been pre-approved by the authorities. As part of the city's research, staff examined other cities' efforts to create 'permit ready' house plans. One program examined was the Portland Living Smart Competition, wherein the city sponsored a design competition for infill housing on narrow lots. Another program was initiated by the City of Santa Cruz, California. The Santa Cruz program promotes development and creates plans for accessory dwelling units Sacramento authorities determined that the city wanted to pursue a more encompassing solution that would provide sets of 'ready-to-build' plans to construct new housing in several neighborhoods across the city.

They issued a call for proposals to architectural firms interested in producing standard plans that would be acceptable to both the city and the neighborhoods. The city's Development Services Department received ten proposals and selected two firms to create a series of four sets of house plans. Each set of plans is designed to be architecturally consistent with the surrounding neighborhood. The two firms created four sets of house plans, each with three exterior facades. Three of the models come with three bedrooms and two baths, while one model has four bedrooms and two baths. Home sizes range from 1,450 square feet to 1,800 square feet; amenities offered include garages, covered front porches or patios, 10' ceilings, and large open kitchens. Two of the model plans also offer an ADA-compliant design.

Neighborhood and Builder Acceptance

A drawing of a two-story blue house with two trees in the background.

According to Willcox, city staff presented the plans to several neighborhood advisory groups. These bodies, known as the Project Area Committees (PACs) or Redevelopment Advisory Committees (RACs) and Area Leadership (neighborhood) groups, endorsed the new designs as being compatible with the neighborhoods where they would be located. They also agreed that the city could waive pre-development public notice requirements if builders used these designs. In addition, the city's Disability Advisory Commission reviewed and approved the accessibility unit design. The plans were ultimately approved by the city's Design Review and Preservation Board.

At the same time, staff proposed several amendments to the city code to encourage the use of these plans and facilitate development on smaller lots. These code enhancements included:

  • Eliminating the notice requirements that allow for architectural review and replace them with a short 'over-the-counter' checklist;
  • Allowing a detached garage to cover more than 33 percent of the rear yard setback;
  • Reducing side yard setbacks; and
  • Increasing the lot coverage from 40 to 50 percent for homes on smaller lots.


Willcox says that eliminating design review reduces processing time by about a month. The time required for checking building plans is also reduced from two weeks to one day. Builders will have to purchase the plans at a cost of $1,500, in lieu of paying for architectural designs that typically cost $5,000 to $8,000.

Current Status

Willcox also reports that approximately 12 builders have already expressed interest in using the new plans. The city will be conducting a major marketing blitz to encourage use of the plans. If successful, they will pursue the development of additional plans and other strategies for affordable development.

States Move to Promote Accessory Housing Development

A photograph of a single-family home with a brown truck in front.

The popularity of accessory dwelling units, commonly referred to as in-law apartments, ADUs, or 'granny flats,' as a means of closing the affordable housing gap, has increased dramatically in recent years. Such housing provides affordable living space to family members, students, the elderly, and others. Owners benefit by having additional income and security.

In spite of the advantages, some local governments face resistance to such housing from those who fear increasing neighborhood densities. This article examines three states - California, Florida and Vermont - where authorities have limited local governments' ability to restrict the development of accessory housing.


The State of Vermont has recently enacted a statute that requires local governments to permit accessory dwellings. Section 4412 of the Vermont code now requires local governments to permit accessory dwellings in single-family residential neighborhoods. The state allows the ADU to be located either within the structure or outside the existing home, but on the same lot. The statute, however, places some restrictions on the dwelling. It can only be an efficiency or one-bedroom unit and must contain sleeping, food preparation, and sanitation facilities. The city is allowed to restrict such development to properties where:

  • There is sufficient wastewater capacity;
  • The square footage of the unit does not exceed 30 percent of the habitable floor area of the single-family dwelling; and
  • Local setback, coverage, and parking requirements are met.

Vermont also allows local governments to require conditional use reviews and approvals (if the accessory dwelling is a new structure), increases in the height or floor area of the existing dwelling, or increases in the size of the parking area.


After declaring what it calls 'second units' a valuable form of housing in California, the state legislature revised the state's zoning statutes to encourage the development of these accessory dwellings. The 2003 law allows local governments to enact zoning ordinances that mirror state law, but if the locality fails to act, then local governments must use state-established criteria to approve or deny second unit applications. The statute exempts second units from local growth controls and state environmental reviews.

State Restrictions

While the state wishes to encourage second dwelling units, it recognizes that certain limits should apply, so the statute does place some restrictions on these units. ADUs are in compliance if:

  • The unit is intended only for rental purposes;
  • The lot is zoned for single-family or multifamily use;
  • The lot contains an existing single-family home;
  • The unit can be located within the existing dwelling, attached to the dwelling, or detached from the dwelling, but must be on the same lot;
  • The floor area of the second unit does not exceed 30 percent of the existing living area; and
  • The floor area of the second unit does not exceed 1,200 square feet.

Preserving Local Flexibility

The revised statute also allows a local government to apply quantifiable, fixed, and objective standards, such as height, setback, and lot coverage requirements, so that the second unit will be compatible with other structures in the neighborhood. The law also allows local governments to designate zones for second units based on quantifiable criteria. Some of these criteria address the adequacy of water and sewer services, and the impact of second units on traffic flow. A local government may also establish reasonable minimum and maximum unit size requirements for both attached and detached second units. The ordinance must, however, facilitate second unit development, rather than restrict it by applying burdensome provisions. State law also allows any local building code requirements to apply to detached dwellings. If the owner proposes to use or expand a private sewage system, for example, then a local health official must approve the system.

The statute also allows local governments to prohibit second unit development in certain zones, but only if they adopt formal written findings that such development will have an adverse impact on the health, safety, and welfare of the community. The local body should also try to mitigate any adverse impacts prior to the adoption of the findings.

Ministerial Decisionmaking

One of the highlights of the revised California law is the requirement that decisions regarding second units be undertaken 'ministerially.' While the statute gives local governments latitude in developing quantifiable standards against which the community is to consider these proposals, such review is not subject to discretionary decisionmaking. This ministerial decisionmaking process also applies when a local government requires the granting of a variance or special use permit for such development. The statute compares the decisionmaking process for second units to the process for issuing automobile, dog, or marriage licenses.

The state allows public comment during development of the ordinance, but forbids public hearings or discretionary consideration for individual applications. The statute allows public notification of decisions to be made on second units, but requires that the notification process be the same as any other ministerial function. According to the statute, the streamlined processing is intended to reduce uncertainty and increase predictability in the approval process.


Recent Florida legislation encourages local governments to permit accessory dwellings specifically to remedy the shortage of affordable housing that exists in many communities. The 2004 statute finds that house prices often exceed what very-low-, low-, and moderate-income households can afford. In addition, the legislature found that allowing accessory dwellings in single-family zoned areas serves an important public purpose. If a local government determines there is a shortage of affordable rental units, then it may adopt an ordinance to allow such dwellings. Localities that enact these ordinances can use the accessory dwellings created to satisfy housing needs identified in the local comprehensive plan.


Some Other Questions

Owners wishing to create accessory dwellings face a number of issues, even when the local government allows or encourages such development. Organizations in California, Washington, and Vermont have developed guides that address some of these implications and requirements. Some of the questions addressed in these publications concern financing, contracting and architectural services, property and income tax implications, landlord/tenant laws, and fair housing issues.

The new law places no state restrictions on the units. The state law requires that the dwellings be rented at a rate that is affordable to very-low-, low-, or moderate-income households. The law also requires the state Department of Community Affairs to evaluate effectiveness by reporting the number of communities that have enacted such a provision and the number of units actually created.


While each state approaches the issue differently, each recognizes the role accessory housing development can play in meeting the need for affordable housing. Whether encouraging or mandating the use of accessory housing, an increasing number of states are recognizing the role of accessory housing in their overall affordable housing palette.


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